When Infertility Threatens a Marriage

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Kacper Pempel / Reuters

A reader writes:

I’m 36 and I’ve been struggling with infertility for a bit over a year now. I say “I” because from my point of view, this is much more my problem than my husband’s (yes, he’s had tests done and all is normal). I know many men are as heartbroken as their partners over trying to conceive, but that hasn’t been my experience, nor my friends’. My husband loves me and wants me to be happy, but it’s very simple for him to say “we’ll adopt” or “we’ll have a baby some way; you’ll be a mother.” It’s very different to be the one who feels that her body doesn’t work; who doesn’t feel like a woman; who feels as if life is passing her by every day that passes without a baby.

I feel guilt and anger every day about waiting so long to try to get pregnant; anger at my husband for persuading me to wait until we were 35 to start trying; anger at myself for listening to him when having a family is my life’s goal.

I also struggle with jealousy. “Oh! We weren’t even trying to get pregnant!” Even a good friend of mine at age 42 is about to have a baby girl via IVF. I think of her every day and hope I am so lucky.

That reader’s marriage doesn’t seem to be imperiled, but we’ve heard from other readers about the damage that infertility can inflict on a couple. Rachel has seen it secondhand:

I’ve known a few people who have done IVF. What people don’t talk about much is the high level of divorce correlated with the procedure. Couples are three times more likely to divorce [at least according to this 2014 study of Danish couples]. The impact of the hormones often leads women to have harder time moderating feelings, and feeling out of control is compounded with an impact on sex drive that reduces the sexual relationship to mechanics. [This 2010 study from Stanford backs up that last assertion.]

It’s an interesting choice: your marriage or a child.

The high cost of IFV—for example, one of our readers spent $15,000 on it and related measures—undoubtedly strains a marriage as well. Has infertility ruined, or nearly ruined, your marriage? If so, and if you’d like to talk about it anonymously, please send us a note: hello@theatlantic.com.

Here’s another reader who witnessed the detrimental effects of infertility on marriage:

My only story on this subject is not a happy one. My friend was not conceiving, and after the full battery of testing the problem ended up being on her husband's end. She was ecstatic with that answer (donor sperm is a lot less expensive and taxing then if the problem had been her) but he balked. He was on board with the idea of IVF, but not donor sperm and not adoption. Biological or nothing.

She left him over it, since “nothing” wasn’t an answer she was willing to entertain. He tried to get her back after about six months of separation, but she was already living with someone else by then. She’s married with two kids now, but I always think of her first husband and feel bad for the guy when I see her. She could’ve given him a little more time to come around, you know? That’s a pretty big thing to accept. Infertility has a devastating impact on a lot of lives.

Update from a sympathetic reader, Jill:

I just read the story from the 36-year-old woman struggling with infertility for over a year. I struggled too, for years, and it was only my fertility doctor that actually helped me. He said at one point, you have to know you’re more than a vessel to carry a child. It may not sound like it was kind, but it was. He did not want my entire life ruined because I felt inadequate if I did not have a child.

To that reader: Don’t ruin your entire life with anger and resentment or ruin your relationship with your husband. You did what you thought was right at the time. I did end up having one pregnancy and I am fortunate for that. I’ll keep you in my thoughts.